The last legs of our French – Belgian – Dutch roadtrip whisked us through two pretty cities on France’s Atlantic coast: Nantes & La Rochelle. Here are a few snippets of these places that each warrant less rushed exploration.
Nantes is a famous maritime city. Its past is full of commercial glory and slave-trade shame.
The old Breton port of Nantes, situated at the junction of Loire and Erdre Rivers, has played a significant role in the region’s history. Nantes used to be the capital of the Duchy of Brittany in the Middle Ages. It was there that Henry IV in 1598 signed the Edict of Nantes that secured for the Protestants, the freedom of religious belief. Owing to its strategic port location, it thrived as a commercial town from the 1500s to the 1800s. The city has also been a university town since the 1400s. Nantes remains a prosperous center of higher education and is the sixth-largest French city. (source)
But we came just to grab lunch at one of our favorite restaurants (which we bet we’ve mentioned before in these posts). It’s L’Entrecôte. It’s a small chain, with restaurants in Toulouse, Bordeaux, Montpellier, Lyon, Barcelona and Nantes. So far, we’ve visited them in Toulouse, Montpellier, and, now, Nantes. It appears that we are edging into being in the L’Entrecôte cult. Just three more destinations to go!
And it appears that we’re not the only ones. Here’s the line we waited in before noon opening time.
We strolled around the heart of the historic center of Nantes. First stop was an impressive commercial square, La Place Royale. In 1790, the city fathers sought to erase the ramparts and buildings of the medieval period. They replaced the dense winding medieval streets with this grand, ordered, classical square.
A fountain chocked full of symbolism anchors the center of the Place.
Made by Henri Driollet, the fountain adorning the square is formed by three superimposed basins on which thirteen statues take place. The Loire is represented by a woman pouring water by two amphorae, and its tributaries, the Erdre, the Sèvre, the Cher and the Loiret are symbolized by two women and two men. On the intermediate basin, eight geniuses symbolizing engineering and industry and representing the port, … complete the symbolism of the monument. At the top of the fountain, unlike a monarch figure as the name of the square would have logically assumed, a statue of Amphitrite, wife of Poseidon, the god of the sea, made of white marble, personifies the city of Nantes and watches over the statues below. (source)
From La Place Royale, we followed the handsome pedestrianized shopping street of rue Crébillon to La Place Graslin. This is the home of the Angers Nantes Opéra.
There was a detail in this urban square that stood out for us: these whimsical organic lampposts. Such a nice touch of contemporary design, a happy companion to the older traditional architecture.
From a news story when these lamps were first installed:
They look like operetta trees or giant coat racks. … Their appearance does not leave onlookers unmoved. Some find them ugly and shout loudly. Others believe that this gives a little more luster to the place, the redevelopment of which is soon completed.
“The drawings of the candelabra are inspired by the great theater chandeliers,” says Nantes Métropole in its construction book. These floor lamps, 8 meters high and 2.50 m wide, are equipped with 31 light sources. However, there is no question of dazzling the Nantes at night. For economic reasons. “Red and amber leds,” says the community, “spread an ambient light from dusk until one o’clock in the morning. Three light balls stay on all night. ” (source)
A noteworthy covered shopping arcade connects two prominent shopping streets: the Passage Pommeraye. In today’s world of flat anonymous shopping malls, this nineteenth-century passage is fun just for its elaborate character.
Inaugurated in 1843, under the reign of the last King Louis-Philippe, the Passage Pommeraye owes its name to a young notary, Louis Pommeraye, who dreamed of transforming an unhealthy and infamous neighborhood worthy of the Misérables, into a passage of luxurious shops worthy of its very fashionable Parisian models. The construction lasted three years, in particularly difficult conditions: hostility of the residents, a dozen trials and an extraordinary technical difficulty: a height difference of 9.40 meters on a hillside of sand and rock!
However, the operation was an immediate success, the Passage became a popular place for Nantes. There are no less than sixty-six stores. Unfortunately, seven years later, the crisis of 1846-1847 turned it into a financial fiasco. Its promoter Louis Pommeraye was completely ruined. (source)
The Passage Pommeraye is one of the first examples of the transformation of buying goods into the seduction of shopping.
Organized on three levels around a monumental staircase, the Passage offered a new commercial design to its first visitors, who at that time knew only dark shops without store windows and without the display of products. This luxurious and bright enclave in the center of Nantes, a city then in full industrial boom, quickly became a place of fashion, walking, shopping and even flirting for the bourgeoisie. (source)
We stopped for the night in La Rochelle. Our hotel opened on the old port.
Over the centuries, history has buffeted La Rochelle and its protected harbor, some good times, some horrible times.
La Rochelle developed in the 12th century after the neighboring town of Châtelaillon was destroyed by the dukes of Aquitaine. During the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453) it changed hands a number of times but was finally captured by the French in 1372. It became largely Protestant at the time of the Reformation and after the Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day (1572), in which many French Protestants (Huguenots) were killed; many of the survivors took refuge there. Under Louis XIII (reigned 1610–43), La Rochelle sided with the English…. Richelieu, the king’s minister, besieged the town and built a vast sea wall to prevent English ships from relieving their allies. After 15 months’ siege, the town capitulated, three-fourths of its citizens having starved to death. It slowly recovered its former prosperity but declined once more after 1685, when the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, depriving French Protestants of religious and civil liberty, led to massive emigration. In the 18th century the loss of Canada by the French further reduced La Rochelle’s trade. In World War II, it was the location of a German submarine base and suffered from Allied bombing. (source)
Two 14th-century towers frame the entrance to the harbor.
The pentagonal Saint-Nicolas Tower, the larger of the two, is an imposing fortress with crenellated walls and a keep. Opposite it stands the Tower de la Chaîne, so named because at night a big chain was strung between it and Saint-Nicolas Tower to close the port. (source)
Today, it is the home of leisure boats and yachts. And restaurants and cafés.
Our evening in La Rochelle was the last night on our road trip. We enjoyed every minute of the trip (except catching Covid en route). But we were happy to head home, do laundry, sleep in our own bed … and start planning our next trip.